Community Sports

Local wins Bellingham Bay’s Rough Water Race

Three months after undergoing hip replacement surgery, 52-year-old Mike Medler was fit enough to win the short course title in the fourth annual Bellingham Bay Rough Water Race.

So what does Medler plan for an encore?

“I scheduled surgery on the other hip in April so I could compete at the Gorge in July,” said Medler, an associate professor of environmental studies at Western Washington University.”

That would be the first Gorge Downwind Paddle Festival July 20-25 — an event that has the paddling community wildly enthusiastic.

The director will be none other than world renowned 39-year-old surf skier Carter Johnson, who drove from his floating home in Sausalito, Calif., to compete in the Rough Water Race on Saturday morning, March 14, in water that some feared during high winds earlier in the morning might be too rough for safe racing.

Johnson won the modified long course race of about eight miles in 47 minutes and 40 seconds.

Medler took the modified short course race in an impressive 25:41 in his second crack at a Rough Water Race title on Bellingham Bay, followed by 70-year-old Duncan Howat in 27:20.

Medler’s wife, Rachel Medler, watched her husband win the high performance kayak (HPK) title with obvious pride.

“I am proud of him,” said Rachel, who came directly from her yoga at Bikram Yoga Studio in time to see her husband claim an especially impressive victory, considering what he has gone through. “He’s really trying to get back into it.”

Mike — who began paddling about five years ago after originally moving to Bellingham as a rock climber — said he hadn’t thought about his health milestone until after his win.

“It just dawned on me, it’s been three months since my hip replacement,” the affable educator said. “I’m sore, but it’s OK.”

As reflected by the paddlers’ enthusiasm at a pre-race meeting called by meet director Peter Marcus, the paddlers simply would not be denied. They had to wait to start 70 minutes later than originally scheduled to start the race. In all, 54 boats started.

“The rougher the water is, the more fun,” said Medler. “I thought we would do something (despite the early worries). If there had not been a race, 30 of us would have been down here at 9 a.m. (for nearby paddling despite the rough conditions).”

Johnson, who holds two Guinness world records and has won numerous prestigious titles such as the Yukon River Quest and the Texas River Safari, could not have been more impressed with Bellingham and its community of outdoors athletes.

“It’s just such a great community here,” said Johnson, who did the kayak leg in a Ski to Sea race several years ago. “It’s just the best community, with such good energy. Up here, it’s like everyone is on a team. You really feel like you’re part of a community.”

Johnson, a software developer for Wells Fargo Bank, took time to alert local enthusiasts about the Gorge race, suggesting that it would be an ideal short vacation trip.

“There will be hundreds of competitors from all over the world, the Michael Jordans of the sport,” said the affable athlete, who was a gymnast at Purdue University in his home state of Indiana. “And every day, we’ll have an organized group paddle, with a keg and vans (to return) at the finish. And it’s 100 percent downwind and great for spectators.”

The Bellingham Rough Water Race, the second event on an extensive Sound Rowers circuit of races, has battled weather every March. This year, only 12 one-hundredths of an inch of rain — less than 10 percent of normal over the first 13 days of March in Bellingham — had occurred until Saturday.

“Every single year, we’ve had great weather the weekend before our race, only to see conditions like this,” said Marcus, who was gratified by the enthusiasm of the competitors, calling them “a really active, competitive outdoorsy group. They’re gamers.”

Marcus adjusted the course out of necessity.

“We kind of squeezed the course (closer to shore) for safety.”

Howat, the local Mount Baker ski guru, said the race was highly enjoyable.

“That was really fun, surfing the waves,” he said. “The race was what it needed to be (in terms of safety).”

The race drew numerous folks from out of town, including D. Klein and her racing partner Peter Hirtle of Seattle. They enjoyed bringing in their two-person rowing shell first in 26 minutes and 40 seconds on the short course.

Will the effervescent star Johnson return to Bellingham?

“I sure want to,” said Johnson, who made quite an athletic sight with his impressive paddling strokes. “I just love it here.”